Priorities of higher education in the context of digitalization, acceleration and globalization in the modern world - A. Linnikov

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elearningParadoxically, in the context of the total modern-day digitalization of practically all spheres of human activity – economic, social, humanitarian, even political – most important problems of higher education do not have much to do with information technologies and digital economy. In one of his interviews, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin said that digitalization and artificial intelligence are not only an achievement but also a risk and a challenge. This statement, as almost anything voiced by the Russian leader at public functions, probably bounced around in governmental think tanks before assuming the shape of an official position.  So, what are the great challenges of digitalization that even the Russian President acknowledges as significant? We are in no position to give universal answers. We can only look at the current situation and identify issues of major concern in one particular area – teaching of humanities in Europe and Russia. Quite possibly, the excessive emphasis on things like digitalization, IT, and IA is by itself a risk and a challenge to the quality of higher professional education. 

Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation[1] (the “Financial University” or “FU”) is one of the leading educational and research institutions in Russia. It invests a great deal of effort and resources into studying the impact of Revolution 4.0 on education and labor market and development of solutions to problems that universities, professors, students, alumni, and employers already face or may face in the near future. In March 2018 the Financial University hosted the international conference Education of the Future: New Personnel for the New Economy at its central campus in Moscow. Scholars and teachers, top government officials, leaders of trade unions and associations, and practicing professionals joined forces in a two-day brainstorming session. The purpose of this article is to share the author’s personal view, reflect on the outcome of the conference, and invite like-minded colleagues to a further discussion. Please bear in mind that the author is not a career educator but a practicing attorney and employer, involved in academic activities purely out of passion and deep concern for the future of the new generation of young professionals. Author’s educational background is also a factor that influences his assessment of the current situation. He is the graduate of a prominent international law school where the emphasis of professional training was on humanities and language skills. This text concentrates on the priorities of education in humanities. Namely, the disciplines closely related to the author’s professional practice: law, economics, finance, and management, with not much to say about natural sciences, engineering, and technical disciplines. Some of the ideas, expressed herein may not be very original. The author apologizes in advance for being a bit of an idealist and hopes for understanding and support of the colleagues. 

Regardless of the latest technological developments and consequent lifestyle changes, it is our duty as scholars and educators to uphold and protect the well-established social values and traditions. This may sound overly pompous and conservative but conservativism is an ingrained element of all universities as social institutions.[2] At the same time, it is our task to supply students with tools, necessary to continue self-education and confront real-life challenges on their own. In order do so, as well as to advance academic studies and applied research, we need to balance and combine our best academic and scientific traditions with the requirements of the modern day and latest technological achievements. In our opinion, today’s priorities of higher education may be summarized by the following seven points.   

  1. 1.Fundamental Education. Our great contemporary Daniil Granin[3] once said that education is something that remains when everything that has been learned is long forgotten. Many potential employers and even some members of the academic community (the ones that probably believe themselves to be advanced and innovative) reason in terms of skills and competences that the graduates must have. These people sustain that excessive knowledge and obsolete traditions burden the future graduates. We, on the other hand, sustain that fundamental education, strong on theory and mental exercise, is the only way for a person to acquire a broad prospective, develop professional erudition and intuition, and obtain self-education skills necessary to generate new ideas and initiatives, develop creative approaches to work and research. 

It is good to know that many leaders of the business community, including the hi-tech sector, and potential employers share this view. This is true not only for humanities but for natural sciences as well. For example, founder and president of one of Russia’s leading IT companies 1C Boris Nuraliev at the IV International Forum of the Financial University clearly spoke in favor of the fundamental approach to education in computer science and engineering. 

Getting back to Daniil Granin’s aphorism, the objective of higher education today is not to teach a set of narrow skills (this is only good for a trade school or community college) but to give what remains after everything that has been learned is long forgotten – a general professional competence and a well-developed ability for social adaptation and growth in combination with advanced self-education skills and methods. 

  1. 2.Language Skills. We believe that quality of education and its subsequent application in the world of gainful employments are directly related to the level of the graduates’ languages skills. English language – currently the universal means of international communication – is no longer a foreign language but a mandatory annex to the mother tongue. The core problem that Russia shares with a few European countries (Italy, in particular) is the relatively low level of English proficiency among students, graduates, and faculty of our universities. It creates a series of subsequent complications: from inability of, otherwise quite capable and proficient students and faculty members, to productively engage in academic exchange and study foreign sources to the overall deterioration of academic research and inability of the “handicapped” graduates and scholars to join the workforce on competitive terms. 

Solutions to the language skills problem are well known and successfully applied by universities throughout Russia and Europe. The finest example in Russia is the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (the MGIMO) that for five decades trains personnel for the diplomatic service, international business and finance, and media. It has accumulated a wealth of methodology and experience to be simply studies, amended, and reproduced by other universities. The key factor here is not accessibility of know how but time. We believe that not less than 5 to 7 years of consistent work are needed to properly implement a quality language-teaching project, draft quality personnel, tune up or develop adequate methodology, acquire own experience, and produce sustainable results. 

  1. 3.Academic Mobility and International Exchange. One thing leads to the other: advanced language skills are required for the advancement of international co-operation and sharing of experience with foreign colleagues. 

The world around us evolves so rapidly and there is so much to see and learn outside our native lands! From the idealist prospective… From the practical standpoint, vast international exchange of information, technologies, scientific knowledge, and educational services is vitally important for all nations. Closure within confines of a state leads to stagnation of national economies, inability to compete with other international players, and eventual failure to improve the quality of life of the population. This thesis is also true in respect to the educational and research institutions that are economic operators in their own right. Failure of these institutions to engage in competition on the world scale by sharing information on their products and achievements and “taking home” the valuable missing elements from the outside suppliers, leads to rapid deterioration of quality of their intellectual product and inability to comply with constantly evolving educational and research standards. 

Once again, solution to this problem is known and may be implemented at any time. Regretfully, current international political environment and the global down phase in world economy create real and subjective obstacles for co-operation initiatives. Lack of resources is also a factor: very often, the universities simply do not possess sufficient funds to finance academic mobility projects with no immediate gains. 

  1. 4.Inter-disciplinary Approach. Importance of multi-disciplinary approach to education in humanities is often emphasized by leading European scholars. Rector of the Turin University Prof. Gianmaria Ajani, while speaking at the Financial University in Moscow on 23/03/2018, actively advocated the development of cross-disciplinary studies and educational initiatives in such fields as law, economics, and social science. Secretary General of the European Institute for Social, Economic, and Political Studies (EURISPES) Marco Ricceri also shares this view. On numerous occasions, Prof. Ricceri spoke of abandoning narrow-minded professional stereotypes in favor of broader and practice-oriented educational programs compliant with the requirements of the present day economy and expectations of the labor market. 

In recent years in Russia has become the very common the practice of so-called “second higher education”. Accomplished professionals – lawyers, economists, accountants, etc. – take abbreviated curriculum courses to obtain second degrees and additional specializations. Most common combinations are those of law with economics, accounting, audit, and management. What does it effectively mean? More and more people show desire to self-improve and reach new professional horizons? Regretfully, no. The meaning of this trend is quite prosaic: professional training provided by the “first” degree is not sufficient because it does not cover adjacent and closely related areas. In other words, the modern-day labor market no longer wants conventional narrowly specialized lawyers, economists, accountants, bank clerks, and managers. The labor market craves professionals with a wide range of competences, able and willing to adjust to rapid changes and mold their skills to fit actual tasks and business objectives. This modern day fact once again speaks in favor of fundamental education that provides the graduates with precious tools – broad professional and cultural erudition, advanced self-education and social skills, ability to adjust to circumstances and improvise in new environments. All of this requires elements of law, economics, social science, psychology, and philosophy that are currently taught in fundamental universities as parts of the basic curriculum but, unfortunately, in many schools begin to fade away giving way to a single core discipline and development of technical skills. 

  1. 5.Involvement and Team Work. Foreign colleagues (for examples, professors from Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain) that come to teach courses in Moscow often wonder why the student audience is so timid. Although there is always a lot of interest to guest lecturers from students and faculty, questions are very few and rarely call for opinions. A usual question from a Russian student is an inquiry for a fact or a solution, not an invitation to a discussion. The common opinion is that the shyness and extreme self-containment are vices generated by obsolete education methods and excessive disciplinary pressure of middle school. We do not know for sure. What we do know is that it is the duty of a teacher to firmly lead the student body, inspire respect, build strong teacher-pupil relationships, and achieve maximum level of engagement of all students, even the weakest ones. We believe that the best and easiest way to promote involvement is team work. 

In course of the 2016/2017 academic year, we conducted an unofficial experiment with the second- and third-year students within the International Business and Fundamentals of International Entrepreneurship course. The students were initially passive and showed little interest to the subject. We divided 3 academic groups of 25 to 30 people in project teams (roughly 7 to 10 people each) formed randomly, with no regard to friendships and personal preferences within academic groups. Many students ended up in teams with people they did not like or know well. The task for the teams was to generate hypothetical business projects loosely based on the professor’s professional cases and present detailed business plans at the end of the semester. 

The experiment showed unexpected results: out of 10 project teams, only two were unable to self-organize, identify leaders, distribute tasks, produce and present sensible results. In most cases, though, even the least responsible and reliable team members did their job well and contributed to the joint effort. One of the semester projects evolved into a student research project later published in the university digest. Fifteen of the second-year students requested to have the same professor as their academic supervisor of the third-year term papers. Six third-year students requested the professor’s academic guidance for their qualification papers. 

Failure of two of the teams can be explained by extremely low self-esteem of the students and their total lack of confidence. These teams were composed of members of the very last academic group of their year – purposefully composed of the less-promising and less academically fit students – and labelled so from day one. No surprise, only one of the teams from this particular group was able to overcome the superimposed loser stereotype and make good progress, thanks to team work and mutual support of group members. In other words, team work produced much more valuable and practically important results than all other academic activities. Needless to say, team work is also the closest thing to the actual business reality. Besides purely academic knowledge, it teaches co-operation skills necessary to fit into real-life business environments and find one’s place in the real-life work teams. 

We suggested to form more joint research groups and introduce collective graduation projects as an alternative to individual graduation papers. These proposals are currently under consideration by the university management. However, it is unlikely that these initiatives will be widely implemented any time soon because they apparently clash with the current state education regulations and standards. We only hope that more elements of team work and collective brainstorming will be gradually introduced into the academic process. 

  1. 6.Faculty Motivation. Our limited experience shows that members of the faculty face serious motivational problems being unable to work up the energy and enthusiasm necessary to pursue a productive teaching activity. Some of it is due to the aging of the faculty but only partially. For instance, as of 2017, the average age of the FU professors is 49, which is not very old comparing to many other universities. Is income a factor? Apparently, not. Income of the FU faculty members is approaching the European average. Here are a few possible concurrent reasons: 
  • Excessive formalization of all organizational aspects of the university life and burdensome reporting requirements that take away the time that otherwise could be dedicated to work with students or research;
  • Difficulties in publishing scientific results. Complicated and ever-evolving requirements to academic publications often suppress actual substance of research in favor of unimportant formalities and discourage the faculty form work on publications;
  • Vulnerability to verification and student criticism. In today’s information society every word a teacher says in the classroom can be instantly checked and challenged by the students. This reality makes many professors uncomfortable;
  • Unjustified multitude of overlapping courses. The academic programs are often obsolete and self-repeating, which annoys and confuses the students and bores the faculty;
  • Significant gap between the faculty and the real business and labor market. Students show limited interest to disciplines taught by professors distant from the actual business environment and unaware of the realities of the professional world;
  • Limited attention and memory span of the students. Instant accessibility of data eliminates the necessity to memorize large volumes of information, so the memory of students and their attention span do not meet the expectations of the faculty, causing frustration and intolerance;
  • Demonstration of higher social standing and material wealth by the students is a factor that causes stress, anxiety, and inferiority complexes within the faculty. 

These are only a few of the obstacles to overcome in order to introduce confidence into the student-faculty relationship and stimulate better professional and emotional engagement of professors into the academic process. Frankly speaking, we do not have all the solutions yet but we’re working on them and we are open to advice and suggestions from colleagues that have successfully tacked these problems in the past. 

  1. 7.Solid Connection of Education with the Real World. Of course, the discussion about practical application of professional education is not new. However, very few practical steps are taken to bridge the gap between academic teaching and future employment. Here are a few things that could be done to bring a university closer to the labor market: 
  • Introduction of a mandatory direct connection between the pre-diploma internships and themes of graduation papers;
  • Encouragement of part-time student employment and entrepreneurship;
  • Coordination of the university’s educational effort with the employment agendas of major employers and hiring plans of the state;
  • Introduction of additional and/or extra-curricular courses aimed at the development of narrowly focused skills and competences at request of specific employers;
  • Recruitment of practicing professionals as teachers of main curriculum and/or extra-curricular disciplines and encouragement of events featuring practicing professionals as guest speakers and lecturers. 

Of course, implementation of these measures requires deep involvement of potential employers, active participation of the student body, and interest from the ordinary faculty members in the shaping of the university agenda, which is not easy to achieve. Partly for reasons described in point 6 above. 

Once again, the real current priorities of education do not have much to do with IT and IT training. Technologies are getting obsolete by the minute. Today’s students are perfectly trained to find and use technological solutions sufficient for successful learning of humanities. The voices calling for the more advanced technological training in the schools of law, economics, and social sciences are nothing else than attempts to win points for innovative approach to education – pretty lame attempts, really. What is really needed, though, is the consistent and rational gradual re-equipment of university facilities with modern communication and research means – in other words, a simple and easily accessible engineering infrastructure. Many universities, including the FU, already have that. 

In March 2018 Prof. Giuseppe Valditara, while speaking at the Financial University in Moscow, voiced a concern about access to Internet and the level of technological equipment of Italian schools. We totally agree with Prof. Valditara’s assessment of the situation and his opinion that basic technological skills and user competences must come to the university from high school. A university student must come prepared and have basic IT skills at the time of enrollment. Universities, unless they are engineering or computer science schools, don’t have much to add to the students’ competences in terms of IT-literacy. 

We are also skeptical about the fashionable notion of online education. In our experience, it has rather limited productivity and compromises the human element of learning. Conservative nature of university education and fundamental science call for the development of stable teacher-pupil relationships and formation of close professional and social bonds between students and faculty, within ethical limits, of course. Moreover, human contact in educational services is becoming a value by itself. According to the recent economy of impressions concept, cheaper goods and services will soon be delivered exclusively by the cheapest means – online – while the premium quality and luxury goods and services will be accessible though physical contact with human interaction for those who can afford the use of physical infrastructure. This means that all the best things in life, including elite education and advanced intellectual products, will be accessible only to the most capable and successful – exactly the kind of people that we aim to raise as educators!

 

linnikovAlexander Linnikov

professore associato economia e finanza mondiale

Università Finanziaria presso il Governo della Federazione Russa 



[1] www.fa.ru

[2]One of the speakers at the strategic session of the Financial University faculty in January 2018 said that among the oldest organizations in Europe (over 300 years old) over 40% are universities. We believe that this fact is a more than vivid illustration to the conservative nature of universities.

[3] Daniil Granin (1919 – 2017) – Soviet and Russian writer and thinker.